One of the city’s leading early music organizations, Mercury Baroque, has recently re-branded itself as Mercury-the Orchestra Redefined. Antoine Plante, conductor and artistic director, left Montreal to attend Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. He started Mercury Baroque in his home. Mercury has since become one of the city’s leading chamber orchestras. Plante talks change with A + C editor Nancy Wozny below.
A+C: Let’s start with your big news. You changed your name and opened up your scope. I often wondered if you ever got the urge to play music outside of the Baroque era. Can you bring us into this decision?
Antoine Plante: What makes Mercury’s performances unique is the way we perform (the quality, dynamism, passion and intimacy) rather than the repertoire. The orchestra’s repertoire has expanded in recent seasons to include works outside of the Baroque era. While Mercury will still maintain its tradition of bringing Baroque music to life, it is the organization’s goal to have its brand reflect the natural growth and evolution of the orchestra. As a result of an expanded repertoire and programs, we are able to further our roots within the community, impacting more people.
This also provides an opportunity to redefined the role of the orchestra in our community. We are working hard to impact the lives of more people. Live music is special and has the capacity to transform our lives. It is beneficial to the whole society. Making music more accessible is really important to me. So, on top of the name change, we also just announced a new concert series, three programs performed in four neighborhood venues. That’s many more concerts, touching more people.
A+C: What was the oldest work Mercury has ever performed? The newest?
Antoine Plante: We often perform renaissance music in chamber music context. The earliest work we did in our main stage series may have been early Italian baroque music from Monteverdi. The newest composition we performed is Piazzolla’s Four Seasons, which we pair with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Piazzolla is a tango composer who died in 1992, not really Baroque. We will keep having a lot of Baroque music in our concerts. It’s great repertoire that I love. I’m not planning any contemporary music next season (we stop at Schubert), but it may come.
A+C: Will you continue to use period instruments and those warm sounding gut strings too?
Antoine Plante: We are committed to perform the music using the instruments that the composer had in mind when creating the music. It speaks to the quality of the art we present. The change of name does not affect that. It allows us to present more easily how Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert sounded at the time.
A+C: You end your season in a grand Texas style with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and Symphony No. 2 played on period instruments for the very first time. Can you talk about this choice?
Antoine Plante: Beethoven symphonies are really important works to me. We performed the 1st Symphony a few years ago. We are continuing the cycle this season with Symphony 2nd and 3rd. Next year, 4th & 5th.
A+C: How do you trace your stability now to Houston Arts Alliance’s (HAA) MODE program?
Antoine Plante: HAA MODE’s program was a great opportunity for us. The program is designed to help small organizations grow. We moved in our first office space at HAA with the program. They also helped with grants and conferences. We stayed three years. We were a different organization at the end of it.
A+C: Now you are even helping others in HAA workshops, which is terrific. The middle is a lonely place in the strata of Houston arts organizations. What are the challenges of being the shining star of the middle?
Antoine Plante: Our challenges are: how do we reach and impact more people and how do we maintain and raise the quality of what we are doing? It’s a lot of work and it’s hard. We are lucky to have a community that really supports us. As the organization grows, situations change and things are different. I would say that in the middle, we still don’t have the name recognition of the big ones, but we have big responsibilities.
A+C: When you were a grad student at Rice did you ever dream you would be sitting atop a successful orchestra?
Antoine Plante: I always knew that I had a certain talent at making classical music fun, accessible and meaningful to audiences. But, at Rice, I came with a specific goal: how to learn to play my instrument (the double bass) really well. After I graduated, I started asking myself hard questions about in what way I wanted to use my talent. The rest is history.
A+C: What can we look forward to under the new Mercury banner?
Antoine Plante: A fantastic season. It starts and finishes with masterpieces: Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. In the middle are lots of great baroque music. French national Christophe Rousset, one of the world’s best harpsichordist, is coming to lead and perform. Our Christmas concert is a selection of seasonal music. We are pushing the repertoire to Mendelssohn and Schubert with a concert of string quartets arranged for orchestra, and great soprano and Houston’s favorite Ana Maria Martinez joins us for the Valentine’s Day performance. I can’t wait.
A+C: Obviously, music is in your blood, in that you hark from a musical family. Were your toys period instruments?
Antoine Plante: We had a collection of early instruments (over 150 of them) in the house where I grew up. So, in a sense, yes. I do have memories of playing the hurdy gurdy, the talabard, and bagpipes as a young child. It was great to grow up surrounded by music.
A+C: Do you do anything that has nothing to do with music. Surprise us!
Antoine Plante: I’m raising kids, ages 4, 5, and 6 years old. That takes up most of my non-working time. I do manage to play racquetball early mornings. I dance tango, grow things and cook. Music is a huge part of my life, and I don’t try to get away from it. On the contrary, when I fantasize about having time by myself, I think of listening to music.